Is There a Future for the City of Tomorrow?

The consequences of our obsession with urban dystopias and utopias


For all its pretense of futurism, EPCOT today feels like an anachronism. The first park to open after the death of Walt Disney, it dispenses with Disney World's traditional cartoon characters and Main Street, instead celebrating its founder's preoccupation with progress. Early promotional materials for the park—originally envisioned by Walt Disney as a full-scale Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow—invite visitors to imagine a world of technological progress, centralized planning, and scientific management.

Proposed in the twilight years of our collective love affair with urban utopianism, the park was opened in 1982. But for the next 40 years, when cities of tomorrow came up at all in culture, they were invariably dystopian, from the rampant crime of RoboCop's Detroit to the casual traffic violence of Akira's Neo-Tokyo. Until quite recently, urban settings were so central to dystopian fiction that entirely new cities were often invented to host them, as with Cyberpunk 2077's Night City, or Ghost in the Shell's New Port City.

In our initial attempts to build the city of tomorrow, we sliced up cities with freeways, remade neighborhoods along untested design principles, and locked communities into the zoning straitjacket. The results were an unambiguous failure, yet the nightmares they conjured led subsequent generations to double down on growth controls. The ironic result is that cities like Los Angeles today suffer from many of the crises predicted in cyberpunk futures, but in a form that is, for lack of a better word, boring. Say what you will about Blade Runner 2049's Los Angeles, at least it has holographic sex robots.

After a century of fantasizing about what it would be like to have technocrats set the terms of urban life—or fretting about what might happen if they don't—perhaps it's time for a city of tomorrow that lets individuals plan for themselves.

Yesterday's City of Tomorrow

For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans were infatuated with the idea of technological progress and prudent planning ushering in a golden age.

It isn't hard to see why: As innovations like steel framing and the elevator liberated building heights from the constraints of load-bearing walls, the rapid spread of streetcars and the automobile allowed cities to expand deeper into the countryside. An American once tethered to a low-slung hovel and a half-mile walking commute could now conceivably work out of a 30-story tower and commute each day from a distant suburbanizing periphery.

Books like Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000–1887 became runaway bestsellers. An unusually didactic piece of early science fiction, Looking Backward envisions a future America perfected by the nationalization of major industries and the micromanagement of the economy. Boston plays a starring role, replete with what would become standard fare for utopian cities, from climate control domes to instant delivery. Such innovations ultimately came to pass—but in the capitalist form of shopping malls and Amazon.

​Inspired partly by Bellamy, Ebenezer Howard set out an equally fantastical urban vision in 1902's Garden Cities of To-morrow. In place of the dense, dynamic cities of his day, Howard envisioned self-sufficient "garden cities" of exactly 32,000 residents on 9,000 acres. Residences and commerce were to be strictly separated by successive rings of greenbelts, with up to six garden cities orbiting around a central city of 58,000 residents, all to be connected by railroads and canals.

As with Bellamy, Howard's work kicked off an international movement, with dozens of garden cities being built across the developed world. Here in the U.S., Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin, were built by the federal government as part of the New Deal–era Greenbelt Towns program. And as with Bellamy, details of Howard's vision would be realized by the private sector, with garden-city ideas informing the design of subdivisions.

The rise of mass automobile ownership likewise seeded new strains of popular urban utopianism. In an update on Baron Haussmann's remaking of Paris, the architect Le Corbusier variously excited and terrified French audiences with his 1925 proposal to replace much of historic Paris with rows of identical modernist high-rises towering over free-flowing traffic. At the 1939 New York World's Fair, General Motors' Futurama exhibit proposed something similar, inviting Americans to imagine a "future" 1960 city carved up by 14-lane freeways.

Arriving in the mid-1960s, Walt Disney's original vision for EPCOT drew liberally from these various disparate traditions. After all, Disney didn't intend his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow to be just another theme park—it was supposed to be a trial run for the city of tomorrow.

"EPCOT will be a planned environment, demonstrating to the world what American communities can accomplish through proper control of planning and design," a narrator explains in an early promotional film. EPCOT was to take a potpourri of high modernist urban planning ideas to their logical extreme: Residences, shopping, and industry would be strictly separated and bounded by greenbelts. Daily life would happen within the confines of megastructures. Underground freeways and PeopleMovers would ensure the seamless flow of traffic. And large corporations on friendly terms with planners, such as General Electric and DuPont, would be the stars of the show.

The trouble for Disney was that, by the time EPCOT was first announced, many of the experiments in urban living it proposed were already well underway—and the result was proving to be a nightmare.

Planning the Dystopian City

The economist John Maynard Keynes once quipped that we "are usually the slaves of…some academic scribbler of a few years back." By the second half of the 20th century, this was certainly true of the American city.

Progressive dreams of technocratic planning yielded zoning codes that criminalized the mixed-use patterns that had defined cities since the dawn of human settlement. Fanciful notions of garden suburbs gave way to the practical reality of mass suburbanization, prescribed and subsidized by a new suite of federal housing policies. A frenzy of urban freeway construction helped to facilitate this exodus, carving up and segregating communities in the process.

The results proved catastrophic. To connect cities to newly booming suburbs, planners ripped apart neighborhoods to make way for freeways, displacing many thousands of residents and businesses while ensnaring downtowns like Kansas City's. Ill-conceived urban renewal wreaked even more havoc, with St. Louis' Pruitt-Igoe development—totaling 33 high-rise modernist towers—being built and demolished in only 18 years. Cities like Buffalo lost half of their population between 1950 and 2000, despite stable metropolitan populations.

In this context, the city of the future gradually transformed into an oddly alluring object of terror, with neon and skyscrapers masking the state-sanctioned cronyism, ethnic tension, and casual violence that increasingly defined cities. Consider cyberpunk, the essential science fiction genre of the 1980s, which was built almost entirely around fears of the future. The genre reconfigures elements of the urban utopian script, recasting technological progress and corporate governance as vices rather than virtues, while warning viewers of the risks of unmanaged urban growth and diversification.

Blade Runner, released in 1982, depicts Los Angeles in the distant future of 2019 as a city overwhelmed by growth, environmental devastation, and corporate overlords. Navigating streets packed with refugees from dozens of nations, the viewer is meant to feel a kind of Lovecraft-in-Brooklyn horror. Corporate cover-ups and crooked cops undermine our hero's efforts to crack the case, while the presence of androids forces him to question his very humanity. An ever-present blimp reminds us of the only way out: "A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies."

Across various entries to the cyberpunk genre, urban growth is invariably framed as coming at the cost of the environment. Within cities, technological "progress" is depicted as sending every social problem into overdrive, from drug addiction to sexual depravity to social isolation. Where the EPCOT vision of tomorrow imagined captains of industry and state planners working together in harmony, entries like Cyberpunk 2077 reframe such collusion as an elite conspiracy, destroying the quality of life of everyday people to the benefit of crony capitalists.

Such nightmares were not without basis. Almost as soon as the first wave of modernist planners gutted cities, a second wave proposed increasingly desperate interventions for saving them, often at the cost of marginalized populations. In cities like Detroit, planners seized and demolished entire neighborhoods to make way for large corporate investors like General Motors. Similar urban renewal initiatives would be used to replace neighborhoods with stadiums, convention centers, and corporate headquarters in cities across the country.

At times, cyberpunk directly critiques such methods; at times, it merely frets over the devastating results. In RoboCop, released in 1987, a shadowy corporation attempts to tame Detroit's crime with an ethically dubious policing technology. In Escape From New York, an early cyberpunk film from 1981, Manhattan—at the time in the throes of a wave of violence—has become an islandwide prison.

Yet the pervasive cultural fear of cities that cyberpunk inspired didn't reverse the planning pathologies of a previous age. If anything, it turned them up to 11. Americans responded to dystopian depictions of the city of tomorrow not by reversing the centralized planning and pseudoscientific management that had so failed them, but by doubling down, with a fresh dose of technophobia added in for good measure.

At least through the early 2010s, zoning rules continued to tighten and urban freeways continued to widen. Today, you can barely ride an electric scooter across most cities, let alone a flying car. Many American cities ended up with cyberpunk problems—homelessness, inequality, sprawl—but without any of the compelling cyberpunk aesthetics. The desert of the real is the dumpy $2 million bungalow and half-empty strip mall that are illegal to redevelop because we are now too petrified of the city of tomorrow to allow any change.

(<em>Escape From New York; Kim Gottlieb-Walker</em>Everett Collection)

Decentralizing Tomorrow

The best thing that could happen to the "city of tomorrow" might just be for the concept to die altogether. Aggressively laudatory or scornful depictions of future cities risk confusing at least as much as they clarify. And while utopian cities have largely fallen out of fashion, urban dystopias continue to plague popular culture. Just look at the most recent season of Westworld, which continues to try to scare viewers with corporate megastructures and holographic billboards that would today be largely illegal to build in Los Angeles.

Or maybe we just need less moralizing about the cities that are to come. Consider the 2013 cult classic Her, which offers an unusually humanistic vision of the city of tomorrow. The film's protagonist, Theodore, is depicted in decidedly futuristic spaces: navigating elevated pedestrian platforms, lounging on a high-speed train to the beach, looking pensively out upon a substantially built up Los Angeles skyline. Yet in each scene, Theodore and his thoughts are meant to draw the viewer's focus, often visually distinguished from the crowd by a bright red shirt. Unlike in past renditions of the city of tomorrow, Her's Los Angeles is not a character but a stage for millions of people to work through their individual plans.

The film's delightfully nonjudgmental tone promises neither salvation nor damnation through technology. To the extent that new androids trigger an existential crisis in Theodore, it is because he falls in love with one. The built form of the film's setting reflects this liberal sensibility. Its depiction of a near-future Los Angeles would be broadly familiar to Angelenos today, though with more skyscrapers and no more evidence of a homelessness crisis, suggesting that a degree of emergent growth rarely tolerated in historical renditions of the city of tomorrow has taken place in the intervening years.

A similar balance is achieved in Lost in Translation's Tokyo—a city which, to a Western viewer, may as well be from the future. The film follows the intersecting paths of visiting Americans Bob and Charlotte, each working through mid- and quarter-life crises, respectively. The film inverts cyberpunk tropes, recasting the aesthetics of exuberant capitalism, such as Shibuya's canyons of glowing signs, as harbingers of life. Tokyo's charm is rooted in its unplanned nature, with the duo meandering through pachinko parlors and karaoke bars, relishing in the spontaneity so often denied by the typical cocktail of modernist planning policies.

More so than with Her's Los Angeles, Lost in Translation's Tokyo evinces the blend of order and messiness characteristic of a healthy city. The trains come on time, yes, but Charlotte observes a man looking at porn on one. Across Tokyo, a chaotic medley of shops and signs front along prudently managed streets. In the film's iconic final scene, the two embrace amid a bustling and uninterested crowd. As we approach the credits, shots of Bob sitting in the back of the cab are interspersed with cuts to the Tokyo skyline as seen from his window—the individual imbues the city with meaning, rather than the other way around.

While urban theorists have largely abandoned utopian thinking—there is no contemporary Ebenezer Howard or Le Corbusier—the work of urban planner Alain Bertaud might lay the theoretical groundwork for this more liberal vision. As suggested by the title of his seminal work, Order without Design, there are no grand designs or master planners in Bertaud's formula. Rather, to truly understand cities is to appreciate them as emergent, self-organizing orders, the outcome of many millions of individual decisions. The evolving, patchwork skyline of Her hints at a future Los Angeles that embraces this reality.

(Photo: <em>Her</em>Warner Bros. Pictures)

The role of the planner within this framework is not to impose a singular design vision, but to create space wherein each of us can incrementally contribute to that design. If that sounds lofty, Bertaud is specific on the implications: Planners should demarcate the public and private realms, stewarding the former—building and managing the infrastructure needed to accommodate growth—while ceding the latter to the market. We know the city of tomorrow needs sewers, but we know very little about the appropriate scale or mixture of uses in any given neighborhood. Lost in Translation's Tokyo hews fairly close to this approach.

Even in EPCOT, there are signs that things are starting to change. After disembarking from the monorail, many families shuffle onto Spaceship Earth, a ride housed in the park's iconic geodesic sphere. Replete with animatronics and tricks of lighting, it tells the story of humanity's ascent from cave paintings to personal computing, concluding with breathless promises of innovations yet to come—a tale of undeterred progress, told with a strikingly dated utopian tone.

And yet, near the end of the ride, a new feature has been added. On the back of each seat, a screen unexpectedly lights up: "Welcome to Your Future!" After answering a few questions about each rider's lifestyle preferences—where they might like to live, how they might like to travel, and what they might like to do—a personalized vision of the future is depicted. Juvenile to be sure, but refreshingly liberal in its centering of the choices and desires of each visitor.

As one exits through the gift shop, a sign reads: "Shaping the future, together." Perhaps there is hope for the city of tomorrow yet.